Posted in Publisher Proof

The Starlings of Bucharest by Sarah Armstrong.

This is the second in the Moscow Wolves series of novels, following on from The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt. I’ve been told by other readers that here we meet some of it’s characters, but from a different perspective. Our hero is Edward Walker, known as Ted. He’s trying to make his way as a journalist in London, after leaving the working class fishing area he grew up in for something different. His career hasn’t taken off as he would have liked and he’s drifting into debt. So when he gets the chance to work for a film magazine, with an assignment to travel to Romania and interview a famous film director he jumps at the opportunity. However, this is the 1970s and Romania is in the grip of Communism. A visiting Westerner is very likely to be treated with suspicion and his plans to travel on to the Moscow film festival could be equally eventful. This sets the scene for an intelligent and different thriller.

For the first few chapters of the book I felt thoroughly confused by what was going on, but I started to realise that Ted is equally confused. He has a driver/ guide and each day he expects to meet with his interviewee, but it doesn’t seem to happen. There was a random comical moment where his guide asked if he could have Ted’s trousers when he left. The author creates an atmospheric picture of this complex destination and all it’s contradictions. Ted notes that people are picking lime blossom in the park and observes that they’re so hungry they’re eating from the trees. His guide corrects him, they’re picking lime blossom to make tea. The author conveys the lovely, well maintained public spaces. Yet, there is also a drabness to everything. The food is bad, the clothes are dull and shops seem empty. Ted observes: ‘It was just a place of waiting and brown paint’. Then there are the restrictions and the guide who’s really a minder, ready to challenge every wrong or damaging assumption made.There were moments where I was just an unsure as Ted about what was really going on. The first time was very early on in Bucharest, when his guide diverts him to a lakeside where a group of men are fishing. All at the same time, Ted observes how beautiful it is but also how isolated, just the sort of place you might take someone to kill them. I really felt like I was in Cold War Europe. Equally, the sections in London felt like the 1970s, slightly worn and decaying, with seedy bedsits, a sense of desperation and simmering violence.

I was interested in the incredible detail the security services go into when looking for recruits. It’s a master class in psychological manipulation. They consider everything about the subject – his clothing, his food and drink choices, his likes and dislikes. They watch behaviour. Who do they trust? Who is important to them? They look in their waste bins and listen to their phone calls. What they’re looking for is a weakness. A way in. Whatever it takes to turn them. Then they bring in the bait – if he has a weakness for women, then a beautiful woman to tempt him from the straight and narrow. I’m a trained therapist and I could learn a thing or two from the listening skills employed here. They’re looking for chinks in the armour. Something they can exploit. For Ted that could be a case of never feeling heard or valued. His concern about wanting to get on. It could even be his naivety, decency and willingness to help. So, Ted is noticed by security services and when he returns to Moscow for the film festival he is watched carefully.

What was most interesting to me, was how Soviet agents used class difference as leverage. We’re used to public schoolboy spies, recruited at Oxbridge and I think this difference was used really well. Ted notices that there are opportunities for people from working class backgrounds in Moscow, perhaps more than in England. This is the chink in Ted’s armour and leaves him open to exploitation in a regime where security services have an ideology to push. There were sections that plodded a bit, but that’s maybe because Ted is a very steady, plodding sort of character. He wants to break into Fleet Street as a journalist but I doubt that he has the sheer brass neck and ambition it takes to get there. He seems like a man who will always end up where he is by accident rather than design. As one character observes ‘any idiot can be a useful one’. The author kept me guessing all the way through. We are learning as Ted is learning, and he does a lot of growing up too. Aside from the George Smiley series, the historical era of the 1970s Cold War hasn’t often been depicted in spy fiction, so I felt I was reading something new in the genre. All in all the stage is set for an interesting book three in this intelligent and unusual series.

Meet The Author

Sarah Armstrong is the author of four novels, most recently The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt and The Starlings of Bucharest. She is also the author of A Summer of Spying, a short non fiction work about her experience of jury service during the Covid-19 pandemic, authority, truth, and the surveillance we are all exposed to. Sarah teaches undergraduate and postgraduate creative writing with the Open University. She lives in Essex with her husband and four children.

Author:

Hello, I am Hayley and I run Lotus Writing Therapy and The Lotus Readers blog. I am a counsellor, workshop facilitator and avid reader.

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